A horrific video showing the murder of Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian fighter pilot captured by the so-called Islamic State extremist group in late December, has stirred outrage and horror in Jordan.
Shocked by the video, which shows Kasasbeh being burned alive, much of the Jordanian public has united in calling for revenge against the Islamic State. But the execution of Kasasbeh could also catalyze increased criticism of Jordan’s government for its involvement in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in both Iraq and in Syria—a decision taken at the highest levels of the state with neither transparency, public involvement, nor parliamentary approval.
Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a first lieutenant in the Royal Jordanian Air Force, was imprisoned in late December after his plane went down near Raqqa in northern Syria during a coalition sortie against the Islamic State. Shortly after he was taken hostage, Kasasbeh’s father asked the “generous brothers of the Islamic State” to treat his son as a guest. Now, he has instead been executed in the most barbaric way imaginable.
The decision to execute Kasasbeh did not come as a surprise. After his arrest, the Islamic State released a propaganda video in which it purported to interview locals in territories under its control and ask them what Kasasbeh’s destiny should be. Two of the interviewees asserted that Kasasbeh was not a Muslim because he was attacking Muslim residents of the Islamic State. Several called for killing him or torturing him, and a child asked the Islamic State to slaughter him.
Negotiations between the Jordanian government and the Islamic State have dragged on for weeks, with Jordan using its connections to Sunni tribes to contact the Islamic State. Although details remain scarce, the Islamic State had allegedly demanded Jordan’s withdrawal from the coalition and the release of 56 Islamist prisoners previously arrested in Erbil and Baghdad. Later, the Islamic State released an audio recording in which it threatened to kill Kasasbeh and a Japanese prisoner, Kenji Goto, unless Jordan released Sajida al-Rishawi, an Iraqi would-be suicide bomber who failed to detonate herself in an Amman hotel in 2005. Jordan refused to release Rishawi before the 24-hour deadline specified, instead demanding proof that Kasasbeh was alive. After another expired deadline, the Islamic State sent out a video showing Goto’s murder, but still did not release any proof that Kasasbeh was in fact alive.
In the video showing his execution, Kasasbeh is first seen addressing the Jordanian public by criticizing the government for fighting the Islamic State rather than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s “Nusairi” forces or “the Jews” who are suppressing Palestinians (Nusairi is a derogatory term for Alawites, the Shia-linked minority to which Assad belongs). Kasasbeh also called on the parents of pilots to stop sending their sons to bomb the Islamic State, so that they do not feel sorry later “the way my parents and wife did for me.”
An Outpouring of Anger in Jordan
News of Kasasbeh’s execution has already brought Jordanians together in anger, though not necessarily in the way hoped for by either the Islamic State or the government.
On the surface, there has been an impressive display of national unity. The government has condemned the Islamic State, and thousands of Jordanians have protested and denounced the burning. Many also called for Jordan to retaliate with the execution of Iraqi jihadists in Jordanian prisons—and early this morning, the Jordanian government did indeed execute both Rishawi and Ziyad Karboli, an Iraqi jihadist who has been on death row since 2008. Condemnations of the Islamic State have come from all quarters: the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition Islamist group, has called the burning of Kasasbeh a criminal act and the Jordanian military has promised to take revenge.
Even Mohammed al-Shalabi, a leading Jordanian Salafi-jihadist linked to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, has criticized the execution and the way in which it was conducted—although he accused Baathist infiltrators within the Islamic State of having been behind the act.
Growing Criticism of the Government
Yet beyond these expressions of outrage, the execution of Kasasbeh has the potential to spur increased criticism of Jordan’s participation in the anti–Islamic State coalition—and specifically the lack of public buy-in.
When Jordan first joined the U.S.-led intervention, it did so without public debate or parliamentary approval. In fact, the public only found out about Jordan’s participation when the Pentagon announced a list of Arab states that took part in the first sorties. For some, Kasasbeh’s execution is seen as further evidence that this was an ill-conceived strategy about which the public should have been consulted. The issue is particularly controversial because some Jordanians oppose the U.S.-led coalition for political reasons. Some argue that because the Islamic State had not attacked Jordan there was no need to become embroiled in a fight against it, while others blame the U.S.-led coalition for helping to sustain Assad. This is exactly what Kasasbeh was forced to say at gunpoint before his execution—and the argument seems convincing to some.
These arguments are mixed with criticism of the government’s handling of the hostage negotiations and its general lack of transparency. One outspoken member of parliament, Hind al-Fayez, has called on Jordanians to “rise” to pressure the government to be more transparent about the negotiations on Kasasbeh. She criticized Arab leaders for walking in support of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical publication recently attacked by al-Qaeda, but then remaining silent when it came to Kasasbeh. She has also called for protests at the U.S. embassy to demonstrate that Jordanians oppose the coalition.
Showing how easily the nationalist backlash at news of Kasasbeh’s death could turn into anti-government criticism, a crowd of demonstrators at a protest was heard chanting against Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour: “Abdullah, your son is an ambassador while Jordan’s son is a prisoner!” There were also reports of riots in Kasasbeh’s hometown Karak, although the disturbances have been limited so far. But with public distrust of the government already high and the political system under increasing economic and political strain, the rising public anger in Jordan could well take unpredictable turns in the future.
Ala’ Alrababa’h is a junior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program.